Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

“He Could Be a Jerk, but Never an Asshole”

Steven Levy read an advanced copy of Becoming Steve Jobs and he seems impressed:

In their new tome, [Brent] Schlender and co-author Rick Tetzeli capture the thoughts of the people closest to Jobs in rare interviews seemingly granted to get the record straight. The subjects include [Jony] Ive, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Apple’s former head of communications Katie Cotton, Pixar CEO Ed Catmull, and Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs. Others who were otherwise uninclined to cooperate did so at the urging of some of the aforementioned insiders. The implicit message seems to be that although almost all of those people participated in the official biography, they very much feel that the Steve Jobs they knew has still not been captured. Catmull’s authorized quote about the new book is telling: “I hope it will be recognized as the definitive history.”

Becoming Steve Jobs is the anti-Walter.

Walter Isaacson’s authorized bio didn’t just over-emphasize the negative aspects of Jobs’ personality, it grossly misrepresented the way Apple works and thinks. Consider the amount of times in the book where Isaacson portrayed a battle between “design” — as an aesthetic pursuit — and “engineering”:

“Before Steve came back, engineers would say ‘Here are the guts’ — processor, hard drive — and then it would go to the designers to put it in a box,” said Apple’s marketing chief Phil Schiller. “When you do it that way, you come up with awful products.” But when Jobs returned and forged his bond with Ive, the balance was again tilted toward the designers. “Steve kept impressing on us that the design was integral to what would make us great,” said Schiller. “Design once again dictated the engineering, not just vice versa.”

On occasion this could backfire, such as when Jobs and Ive insisted on using a solid piece of brushed aluminum for the edge of the iPhone 4 even when the engineers worried that it would compromise the antenna. But usually the distinctiveness of its designs — for the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad — would set Apple apart and lead to its triumphs in the years after Jobs returned.

  1. The iPhone 4’s edge was the antenna itself, and it was made of stainless steel, not aluminum.

  2. The “antennagate” thing was overblown to begin with.

  3. This wasn’t some kind of battle between hardware engineers concerned only with functionality, and designers only concerned with the way the product looks. Both designers and engineers at Apple are obsessed with making great stuff. I have no knowledge of how the company arrived at the use of external antennas, but what I do know is that the iPhone 4 came with a much larger battery and a tightly-packed set of internals. Maybe the antenna drove the size reduction; maybe what seems like cause was actually effect. Maybe, therefore, it was an engineering decision that allowed the company to achieve their hardware goal of near-impossible thinness. But we don’t know this because Isaacson doesn’t explain it, or even really acknowledge it.

    Isaacson did not fully grasp this core, fundamental thought: that design is not purely aesthetic, but an all-encompassing term to define how a product works, feels, and — yes, sure — looks. It’s not the thing that happens last; it starts, ends, and accompanies a product throughout its entire development cycle. Beyond Jobs’ personality, that’s what Isaacson’s bio failed to capture.

If Isaacson could not understand what design meant to Jobs, how could he write the book of record about Jobs’ professional life? Correcting that fundamental flaw is what I hope Becoming Steve Jobs achieves.

Update: In his own words (via Steve Troughton-Smith).